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UNC's Bowles' retirement plan not a surprise

UNC system President Erskine Bowles' plan to step down at age 65 is no surprise to those who hired him.

Bowles, whose plan was reported Sunday in this story and this related interview transcript, told his bosses with the UNC system's governing board from the start that he would likely follow the tradition set by past university leaders and leave at that age.

"He has said from the very beginning that is what he intended to do," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. "He has been very open to everybody about it. It's not a surprise to us."

Following that timeline, Bowles, 63, would be gone in two years. Bowles began work Jan. 1, 2006,
succeeding Molly Broad, a career higher education administrator who
headed the system for eight years.

In a long interview last week with a News & Observer reporter, Bowles spoke of his role as a "change agent" for the university, a demanding leader who presses people hard.

"I’m a pusher. I’m a driver," he said. "And you can only take so much of that. Really, they’ll need a kinder, softer person. I would imagine I’ll be there another year and a half or so."

Bowles came to UNC with no background in higher education. A former White House Chief of Staff under President Clinton, Bowles has decades of experience in investment banking and brought a businessman's eye to the running of the state's universities.

And though he had no experience with tuition rates, public university budgets or academic planning, he has impressed staffers with is ability to learn on the go.

"The man has incredible intellectual capacity," said Rob Nelson, the UNC system's vice president for finance. "I've worked for a lot of people in 30 years in state government. I"ve never seen anyone devour numbers the way he does."

Gage, chairwoman of the UNC governing board, said she expects Bowles will face some opposition as his 65th birthday approaches.

"He drives himself hard, and everyone he works with, he drives hard. But contrary to what he says, I don't think he will have worn out his welcome," Gage said. "We would all be thrilled if he changed his mind, and I think people will try to convince him to do that."

A Q&A with UNC's Bowles

In today’s News & Observer, we have a long story about Erskine Bowles and how busy he is.

Okay, that’s simplifying things a bit.

Bowles, 63, is president of the UNC system, a far-flung empire stretching from North Carolina’s mountains to the coast. He oversees 17 campuses, a $2 billion budget and the educations of more than 215,000 students.

But in his spare time, this former White House Chief of Staff is one of 12 corporate titans charged with overseeing General Motors. He’s also one of 12 members of the board of directors in charge of Morgan Stanley, the financial services giant.
And he’s one of nine members of the board charged with oversight of Cousins Properties, a real estate investment firm.

That’s an automotive company, a bank and a real estate firm — three of the industries primarily involved in the nation’s ongoing economic struggles.

So that got us to wondering about how Bowles manages all these responsibilities, and whether his corporate involvements infringe upon the time he spends managing the UNC system.

As part of our reporting,  Jonathan B. Cox sat down with Bowles and talked at length about these issues.  Bowles related some interesting tidbits, including the possibility that, a year or two from now, UNC leaders may be looking for his successor.

Here are excerpts from that interview.

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